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242 posts categorized "Decoration"

21 October 2020

Angels in Manuscripts

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Angels pop up all over the place in medieval manuscripts, from Books of Hours to handbooks on magic. They are key players in Old and New Testament stories and feature in decorative borders. Join us for a tour of some of the wonderful images of angels in British Library manuscripts and the many varied contexts in which they appear.

Angelology

An illustrated treatise by Francesc Eiximenis discusses the properties of angels, for instance ‘How an angelic spirit has no body and yet it can take on corporeal form by entering a body’ and the characteristics of good and bad angels. Each man and woman must choose between the angels’ path of goodness and the evil ways of the devil, as shown in this miniature below.

Illuminated manuscript with an picture of a guardian angel guiding a man away from the devil
A guardian angel guides a man away from the devil, in the Livre des anges, a French translation of Francesc Eiximenis, Llibre dels Àngels: Sloane MS 3049, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amour, an encyclopaedic work in the Catalan language with the emphasis on theological and courtly traditions, contains a section on the offices or tasks of angels, which include seeing off the devil, interceding with Christ for humanity and carrying souls to Heaven. 

An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below)
An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below), Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour: Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 40r

Angels in the Old Testament

Angels play a leading role in some of the best-known stories in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, an angel with a flaming sword bars the gate to the garden and they are forced out into the world where they have to work hard for their livelihood.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve banished from Eden; an Angel stands, sword in hand, barring the gate; Adam digs and Eve spins, The Holkham Picture Bible: Add MS 47682, f. 4v

In the Old Testament story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, he has a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels climbing up and down, and he hears God’s voice blessing him from above. In his old age, returning home to the land of Canaan after a long exile, he wrestles with an angel all night, remaining unbeaten, and receives a blessing, being given the name ‘Israel’. These two episodes are illustrated as part of a prefatory set of images from the Bible in the Omne Bonum, an alphabetical encyclopedia of general knowledge written by James le Palmer, Clerk of the Exchequer in c. 1360.

Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below)
Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below), Omne Bonum: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 3v

Angels and the Birth of Christ

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the medieval church calendar. Pictures of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Christ are found in Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters and Bibles. A search using the term ‘Annunciation’ in the ‘Image description’ field of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts produces 166 results, one of the earliest being the Echternach Gospels from the mid-11th century, where a full-page illumination of this scene precedes the Gospel of Matthew.

The Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, the Echternach Gospels: Egerton MS 608, f. 20r

Angels sometimes appear in scenes of the Nativity, including this charming depiction of a helpful angel preparing a bath for the newborn Christ in the stable, while the baby plays with the donkey, Mary rests, and Joseph looks on with his arms crossed. This is just one example of how useful angels can be to have around.

A Nativity scene in a Book of Hours
The Nativity, at the beginning of the prayers for the hour of Prime in the Hours of the Virgin: Sloane MS 2468, f. 51r

Angels in Revelation

Angels play a key role as the agents of God’s plan for the end of the world in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They guide John in his vision and bring about disasters on earth: seven angels are given seven trumpets to blow, causing a series of cataclysmic events, and later, seven angels use seven censers to pour out plagues on earth.

Two tiered manuscript illumination: Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below)
Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below) (Revelation 8:2-5), the Silos Apocalypse: Add MS 11695, f. 126r

In Revelation, a war takes place in heaven between the forces of good, led by the archangel Michael and the evil followers of the dragon, or the devil. The Tiberius Psalter from mid-11th century Winchester contains a colour outline drawing of St Michael defeating the dragon, as part of a series of scenes from the Bible.

St Michael defeats the devil in the Tiberius Psalter
St Michael defeats the dragon (Revelation 12), the ‘Tiberius Psalter’: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 16r

Angels in saints lives

Two of the leading English saints, Cuthbert and Guthlac, were visited by angels, as shown in their illustrated hagiographies. According to the Venerable Bede’s account of his life, St Cuthbert, who became bishop of Lindisfarne, was visited in his youth by an angel disguised as a weary traveller. In this scene, Cuthbert has seated the traveller at his table and is washing his feet, showing Christ-like humility. Here the artist has cleverly dressed the figure in the hooded cloak of a traveller or pilgrim, but has included angels’ wings to show his true nature.

Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise
Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise, from Chapter 7 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 17v

The life of Guthlac, the Mercian hermit-saint, is told in a series of roundels on a parchment roll produced in Lincolnshire in c. 1200. He builds a cell on the island of Crowland, where he is visited by an angel and St Bartholemew.

An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac
An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac, The Guthlac Roll: Harley Roll Y 6

Good and Bad Angels

As Revelation shows, not all angels are benign. In the Divine Comedy, when Dante reaches paradise with Beatrice, they see the Archangels Michael and Raphael battling the bad angels (who fell from grace with Lucifer) and casting them into hell.

Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels
Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels, Divina Commedia: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 181r

Beliefs about angels were not always sanctioned by the Church as they could sometimes cross over into the occult. A book of magic from the 16th century known as the Sworn Book of Honorius has a section on how to summon heavenly intermediaries so that they will impart knowledge of all things to the user. Both good and bad angels are pictured and named on this page. The images themselves were believed to have magical properties.

The red angels of Mars and the golden angels of the sun
The red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel and the golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, in The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Good and bad, useful and militant, it's clear that angels hold an important place in medieval illumination. Explore more amazing images on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts sites.

Chantry Westwell

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

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Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

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28 July 2020

Picturing the Old Testament in the Rochester Bible

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So far in this series of posts on the great Romanesque Bibles held by the British Library, I have focused on those made on the Continent: the Worms Bible, Arnstein Bible, Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible. Today’s blog is about an English example, from the former cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, in the second quarter of the 12th century. Unlike the others, which are all in two huge volumes, only part of the Rochester Bible survives, now divided between the Royal collection in the British Library and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Both portions are fully digitised and available online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (Royal MS 1 C VII), and on the Walters Art Museum's site (MS W.18).

Together these two parts constitute one of only eleven known extant English Romanesque display Bibles. Although it is slightly smaller than the Continental manuscripts featured, measuring 395 x 265 mm, the Rochester Bible is still a larger format than most other manuscripts from the period. The Royal portion of the Bible includes only the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth and I–IV Kings (I–II Samuel and I–II Kings in modern Bibles), while the Walters portion contains the New Testament. Four of the seven books have historiated initials (letters containing identifiable scenes or figures) depicting events described in the first chapters of these books. These historiated initials occur only in the Royal portion of the Bible, at the beginning of four of its seven books: Joshua, and I, II and IV Kings.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial F with an illustration of the Old Testament figure Elkanah and his wives.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Peninnah.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r (detail)

In contrast to the incredibly complicated theological artwork of the Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible, the illustrations of these books initially appear to be more straightforward. For example, I Kings (I Samuel) begins with a discussion of Elkanah (Elcana in the Vulgate) and his two wives. Each is labelled in the initial with their names above. To his left, Peninnah (Phenenna) holds two children, and in contrast, the childless Hannah (Anna), to his right, holds one hand to her face, perhaps in a gesture of sorrow. This is a succinct summary of the first verses: ‘There was a man of Ramathaimsophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elcana, . . . And he had two wives, the name of one was Anna, and the name of the other Phenenna. Phenenna had children: but Anna had no children’. (I Kings 1: 1-3).

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial P with an illustration of Elijah's Ascension.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elijah's Ascension, with the Old Testament prophet depicted riding a chariot.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v (detail)

Similarly, the initial at the beginning of IV Kings illustrates the second chapter of the text, which describes how, after seeing ‘a fiery chariot’ with ‘fiery horses’, Elias (Elijah) ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (IV Kings 2:11). Yet as C.M. Kauffmann has noted, the choice of this subject for the illustration rather than an event from the first chapter of the book underlines the significance of the Ascension of Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ’s Ascension.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial E with an illustration of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v (detail)

The imagery for the book of Joshua may be viewed as another layered interpretation of the text. The initial shows two men conversing: one young and beardless, and the other with grey hair and beard. The older man is handing the younger man a book. In order to fit the figures into the initial ‘E’, the artist presented the scene sideways—a relatively rare solution—and used the bar of the ‘E’ as a column, creating a setting within a building. Unlike Elkanah and his wives, the figures are not labelled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this scene represents the transmission of the law from Moses to Joshua, as set out a few verses later:

Take courage therefore, and be very valiant: that thou mayst observe and do all the law, which Moses my servant hath commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayst understand all things which thou dost. Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayst observe and do all things that are written in it: then shalt thou direct thy way, and understand it. (Joshua 1:7-8).

So this too, could have Christian significance as a reference to the Old Law that will be fulfilled in the New. It also echoes the actions of the blessed man of Psalm 1, who meditates on the law day and night, and who was understood by some Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of Christ. Further, as Lucy Freeman Sandler remarked, this verse begins next to the decorated initial in the right-hand column of the page, and the word ‘law’ (legem) appears only three lines lower than the image of the book in the initial (private communication).

Together, therefore, these initials enhance not only the elegant presentation of the Word, but also its interpretation.

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading:

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), no. 33.

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190 (London: Harvey Miller, 1975), no. 45.

C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller, 2003), pp. 87, 94, pl. 62, Appendix 2.

And our earlier blog post on the Rochester Bible.

13 June 2020

Layers of meaning in the Floreffe Bible

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Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical communities reading the Bible understood it on more than one level. In this they were following the advice of the Church Fathers, who advocated interpreting the Bible morally and allegorically, in addition to literally. For example, in a prefatory letter to his Moralia in Job, Gregory the Great (d. 604) explained that understanding a text is like constructing a building:

For first we lay the historical foundation; then through typological signification we raise a citadel of faith in the structure of the mind; finally, through moral interpretation we cloth the building with colour.

The most sophisticated biblical illustrations incorporate layers of meaning into their designs in this way. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, this kind of complex composition was particularly popular in the Meuse valley, in modern day Belgium. This method, often with numerous inscriptions and biblical quotations embedded in the image, was employed to decorate metalwork caskets, crosses and reliquaries, in addition to books.

Depiction of an allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy in the Floreffe Bible
Allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Floreffe Bible,

One of the most elaborate and complex examples of this type of decoration in any medium occurs in a large two-volume Bible made in the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, c. 1170. The Bible is another ‘giant’ Romanesque Bible, measuring 475 x 330 mm, like the Worms, Stavelot and Arnstein Bibles explored on this blog recently. It is fully digitised and available online: Add MS 17737 and Add MS 17738.

The second volume begins with the book of Job illustrated with a stunning double-page painting. Parts of the image are straightforward literal renderings of verses from the first chapter of Job. For example, near the top of the left-hand page seven men and three women are seated together at a long table covered with different dishes. This party is made up of Job’s children: his seven sons ‘made a feast by houses, every one in his day. And sending, they called their three sisters, to eat and drink with them’ (Job 1:4).

Above the feasting scene, Job is shown offering a sacrifice to God, with the hand of God emerging making a sign of blessing. The text recounts that after each feast, Job would do this for his children ‘ne [forte] peccaverint filii mei et benedixerint Deo in cordibus suis’ (in case perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts, Job:1:5), as quoted on the scroll that he holds in his left hand.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above
The feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

In contrast, the images below this become increasingly layered in meaning. The central image depicts the three theological virtues, Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit in roundels. This corresponds to a moral interpretation of Job made by St Gregory in his Moralia in Job. St Gregory explained that Job’s three daughters are to be understood as the three theological virtues, and his sons as Seven Gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2.

The eighth roundel contains the right hand of the Lord, which proclaims Dextera Domini fecit virtutem (The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength, Psalm 117:16), and points directly below to a figure of Christ, with rays extending diagonally to twelve seated nimbed men. This image adds a further level of allegorical interpretation of the biblical text, in which the seven sons of Job are equated with the Apostles, who at Pentecost are filled with the sevenfold grace. (As explored by Anne-Marie Bouché, 'The spirit in the world: the virtues of the Floreffe Bible frontispiece: British Library, Add. Ms. 17738, ff. 3v-4r' in Virtue & Vice: The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane (Princeton, 2000), pp. 42-65.)

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

Below the Apostles is another interpretation of the seven virtues. The scene depicts the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy derived from Matthew 25:35-36 and Tobit 1:17, here illustrated by scenes of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the Corporal Acts of Mercy
The Corporal Acts of Mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

On the opposite page is an image of the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36). It is situated directly above a scene of the Last Supper conflated with Christ washing Peter’s feet. Like the facing page, numerous inscriptions interpret the images and their relationship to the forthcoming text. Directly above the two scenes a titulus explains that: ‘that which Moses veiled, behold the voice of the fathers reveals, and that which the prophets covered, Maria brought forth (Quem Moyses velat vox ecce paterna revelat. Quemq[ue] prophetia tegit est enixa maria).

Depiction of the Transfiguration and the Last Supper in the Floreffe Bible
The Transfiguration and the Last Supper, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 4r

This tour de force of biblical interpretation explored visually demonstrates the sophistication of the accompanying illustration to a grand monastic Bible.

To read more about the decoration of this Bible, see the recent post about the opening to the Gospel of St Mark.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 June 2020

The monumental art of the Stavelot Bible

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Around fifty years before the making of the Worms Bible, which we featured recently on the blog, another giant Bible was produced at the abbey of St Remaclus at Stavelot, not far from Liège, in modern-day Belgium. Both volumes of the awe-inspiring Stavelot Bible are digitised and available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.

The monk Goderannus recorded that he and brother Ernesto spent four years working on the Stavelot Bible, and he was precise about what had been achieved in that time. He stated that the writing, illuminating and binding (scriptura, illuminatione, ligatura) had all been completed in 1097.

Despite this specificity, scholars still disagree on whether the two monks (or Ernesto at least) were the artists as well as the scribes of this impressive work. Some speculate that the artists were paid laymen instead of monks, and hence were omitted from the long colophon. Moreover, the difference in style between initials and other painting included in the work suggests that more than two people may have been involved in their production—one scholar identified five different artists.

Christ in Majesty, his feet on a T-O map
Christ in Majesty, his feet on a ‘T-O’ map, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists in the corners, Add MS 28107, f. 136r

What is clear, however, is the quality and the sheer monumentality of the painting included in the Stavelot Bible. Its most famous image, which opens the New Testament, is the huge full-page vision of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. This painting is a powerful icon-like frontal presentation of Christ at the end of time. Christ’s feet rest on the globe of the world divided into three parts (a medieval ‘T-O’ map, of the orbis terrarum, which looks like the letter ‘T’ inside the letter ‘O’), and he holds a golden cross in his left hand. For contemporary viewers, this image may have recalled large scale paintings in church apses, as John Lowden suggested.

Decorated initial of St Luke at the beginning of his Gospel
St Luke at the beginning of the prologue to his Gospel, Add MS 28107, f. 161v

The tall standing or seated prophets and Evangelists depicted at the beginning of their texts are equally expressive and prepossessing. These include unusual standing Evangelists holding scrolls before the prefaces to their Gospels, such as the image of St Luke above.

Genesis initial ‘I’(n), small scenes depicted in roundels
Genesis initial ‘I’(n), with the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion, Deposition, Resurrection, and Christ in Majesty running upwards from the bottom, in the central medallions, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

Painting on a much smaller scale is featured in the Bible's historiated initials. The most complex symbolism is reserved for the long initial ‘I’ (In principio) of Genesis that opens the first volume of the Stavelot Bible. Many small pictures cluster in and around the initial, and depict not the Days of Creation, as is typical in Genesis initials, but rather a series of scenes that provide a visual commentary on the story of salvation.

The words In principio read downwards in the centre, but all of the image sequences begin at the bottom of the page. The central group of roundels start with the Annunciation and culminate with an image of Christ in Majesty at the top. The Crucifixion forms the central part of the composition, and all around are other images from both the Old and New Testaments.

Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels from the Genesis initial
Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

On the left side of the initial is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah building the Ark, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses receiving and then breaking the Tablets of the Law, below Christ preaching and angels. Related events fit in around these scenes, such as the Worshipping of the Golden Calf below Moses.

Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf from the Genesis initial
Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To the right of the central axis is an extended rare depiction of one of Christ’s parables, that of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6), in which the kingdom of heaven is likened to a householder who hires labourers to work in his vineyard at different times of the day. All around the medallions in which the hiring process is enacted the labourers are engaged in pruning and caring for the vines.

Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard from the Genesis initial
Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

This creative and unusual interpretation suggests a relatively high level of familiarity and understanding of the biblical text. In turn, this implies that if brothers Goderannus and Ernesto did not complete the illumination of the Bible themselves, they may have designed and supervised the work of those who did.

You can read more about the Stavelot Bible and find out about two other manuscripts from Stavelot in our previous blogposts. For another giant Romanesque Bible, see our recent blogpost on the Arnstein Bible.


Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Further reading

Wayne Dynes, The Illuminations of the Stavelot Bible (New York, 1978).

John Lowden, ‘Illustration in biblical manuscripts’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- ), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter (2012) pp. 446-81 (p. 454).

27 May 2020

The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters

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Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.

Donor portrait of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), holding a miniature church
King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who is said to have founded St Albans Abbey: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 3v

The Benefactors' Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII) was begun around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity, established by Abbot Thomas de la Mare (r. 1350–96). According to the preface, anyone who made a donation could be admitted into the confraternity, which granted them a lavish induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in this prestigious book.

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey's past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793 (pictured above). Spaces were also left for future entries, and the abbey continued to add the details of new benefactors into the 16th century.

Donor portrait of Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman, holding a charter
Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 90r

The job of compiling the register from the Abbey's old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422), the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum, and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler who waived the cost of the pigments in return for his place among the Abbey's benefactors (f. 108r).

Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book
Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy: kings and queens first, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally laypeople. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included, from members of the royal family and knightly aristocracy, to London burghers, fishmongers, millers and masons.

Donor portrait of Nigel the miller holding a money bag
Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 96r

Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.

Donor portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent, fashionably dressed and holding her gift of a necklace
Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385), who gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 7v
Donor portrait of Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, wearing a suit of armour and kneeling
Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, who gave wine liberally (1417): Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 142v

Where details of a person's appearance were known, it seems that Strayler took care to include them. For example, abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), a gifted astronomer who created an extraordinary astronomical clock for the Abbey, is depicted with a blemished face, reflecting the fact that he was said to have suffered from leprosy.

Portrait of Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock
Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 20r

Similarly, a man named Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynnus ye Swarte) who, together with his wife Wynflæd, gave land to the abbey in the time of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), is depicted with dark skin.

Donor portrait of Æthelwine the Black and his wife Wynflæd holding a charter
Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynus ye Swarte) and his wife Wynflæd, who gave land to the abbey in 11th century: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 89v

Just as fascinating as the benefactors are their gifts, which richly evoke the splendour of medieval material culture. Besides land, property and money, people gave treasures such as jewellery, vestments, chalices, bowls, horns, bells, statues, precious stones and books.

Donor portrait of Petronilla de Benstede holding her gift of a round super-altar
Petronilla de Benstede who gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver on which St Augustine of Canterbury was said to have celebrated: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 101v

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans, we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John Berkamsted who 'did nothing memorable in his life' (nichil memorabile fecit in vita).

Portrait of Abbot Ealdred with a dragon at his feet
Ealdred, abbot of St Albans in the 11th century, who filled in the cave of a dragon: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 12v
Portrait of Abbot John Berkamsted wringing his hands in anguish
John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans (d. 1302), who 'did nothing memorable in his life', Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 19r

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey's community for centuries.

Now you can immerse yourself in this captivating book too: the manuscript is newly digitised and available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 April 2020

Designing the Arnstein Bible

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Following our blogpost on the Worms Bible earlier this month, today I focus on another remarkable German Romanesque Bible in the Library’s collection: the Arnstein Bible. Like the Worms Bible, it is enormous (540 x 355 mm), and now in two volumes. The first volume includes Genesis to Malachi, and the second Job to Revelation, with large illuminated and decorated initials at the beginning of the biblical books. The manuscript is fully digitised, and available to view online (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799).

Decorated initial of Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v

The Bible was made at the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein, on the Lahn river about 30 kilometres east of Coblenz, which was founded in 1139 by the last count of Arnstein, Ludwig III (d. 1185), who became a lay brother there.

In date, the Arnstein Bible was produced around twenty-five years after the Worms Bible. Originally, the manuscript included historical annals recording important events related to the Abbey (now Darmstadt, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 4128), that reveal an approximate date for it of 1172. We also know the name of the man who wrote it, identified in the entry for that year as a brother called Lunandus.

Detail of decorated initial showing Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v (detail)

Lunandus had a formidable task to undertake in planning out the design and layout of this enormous book. The text is written out in 39 lines to a page, with generous margins. Most of the biblical books and introductory material are presented in two columns of 130 mm in width.

An indication that this Bible is a great monastic book is the inclusion of not one, but rather three translations of the book of Psalms, arranged in three parallel columns, each of 80 mm width. This allowed the reader to study the variant Psalm texts across the page (see this previous blog post for more on St Jerome’s (d. 420) three translations of the Psalms in this Bible).

Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101
Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101, Harley MS 2799, f. 40r

For Lunandus, planning the layout for the transition from two to three columns and back again presented particular challenges. The three comparable versions of the Psalms proper finish about three-quarters of the way down the page (f. 57r). The next texts that had to be included only required one version; however the rest of the page was still ruled for three columns. Lunandus had to signal that the reader must switch from comparing the variant Psalm translations across the page to reading one column and then going to the next, sequentially.

He did this by identifying the following texts with a series of rubrics, or headings in red ink (the term rubric is derived from the Latin 'rubrica', the name of the red ochre pigment used to make the colour red). Lunandus presented the short so-called Psalm 151 in the first column and started the prologue to the next biblical book in the second and third columns.

The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, written in three columns
The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r

The rubric in the first column summarises the contents of Psalm 151: 'Hic p[salmu]s pr[opr]ie scriptus est David [et] extra numerum cum pugnaret cum gloria et in hebraicis codicibus non habetur' (This Psalm was written by David himself and is outside the number [of the Psalms] and is not contained in Hebrew bibles. It is about the time when David fought with glory.) The short text in seven verses follows below this heading.

The adjoining rubric, spread out over columns two and three, explains that the Psalms have ended, 'explicit libor psalmorum' (here ends the book of Psalms), and that the prologue to Proverbs is about to begin (incipit). The start of this prologue begins in the middle column. Here Lunandus left room for an enlarged initial letter on eight lines, the letter ‘C’ of the first word ‘Chromatio’, the name of the original addressee. The rest of the word is written in individual letters vertically to the right of the first letter. The initial itself is embellished with stylized acanthus leaf decoration punctuated with characteristically Germanic gold bands ornamented by small round dots that are cinched around the foliate form.

Deatil of the decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs
The decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r (detail)

This sophisticated presentation of text and image represents a stunning achievement in scholarship and design. Like other great or giant Romanesque Bibles, the Arnstein Bible represents a testament to the commitment of its makers to the elegant presentation of the Word of God.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Cornell, 1982), pp. 26, 230, 253 no. 8, pls 157, 162.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 'The Hand of God and the Hand of the Scribe: Craft and Collaboration at Arnstein', in Die Bibliothek des Mittelalters als dynamischer Prozess, ed. by Michael Embach, Claudine Moulin and Andrea Rapp, Trierer Beiträge zu den Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, 3 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2012), pp. 53-78 (p. 62, fig. 22, colour plate 17).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson and the British Library, 2016), no. 23.